Burned out, bashed in and gutted, the surreal scene along one of Waynesville’s main entrances looks like a war zone, and town leaders are concerned with just how long it might stay that way.

The intersection of North Main Street was supposed to be getting a facelift with a new $4.5 million roundabout. But the project has been put on hold until 2024 amid financial woes at the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Preliminary demolition of buildings before the DOT pulled the plug has left the intersection in shambles, however.

The gutted-out walls, partly torn-off roofs and abandoned buildings awaiting the wrecking ball are only part of the problem. One of the buildings is now a charred mess following a fire last week that was likely started by squatters.

“They found a bunch of pizza boxes in the rubble in the basement, and it appears as though someone had been occupying it,” said Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites.

Homeless people squatting in vacant buildings has become a growing problem in Waynesville of late, and the collection of partly torn-up buildings in the roundabout’s right-of-way have become targets.

“We were getting numerous complaints of itinerant folks using those buildings for sleeping quarters,” Hites said.

Allowing the abandoned buildings to sit there until 2024 when the roundabout construction resumes isn’t acceptable in the opinion of town leaders.

“It could attract drug users, vagrants, squatters and children — that’s the big problem is if you get kids going in those buildings,” said Tom McGuire, Waynesville’s chief building inspector.

Local DOT officials are in agreement and want to do something about the ruinous mess of buildings in its right-of-way. But money for the roundabout has been frozen, presenting a conundrum.

“We have sent a request to Raleigh asking permission to tear those buildings down,” said Brian Burch, head of the regional 10-county DOT division that includes Haywood County.

Typically, demolition is done as part of the construction contract. Since that’s now four years out, Burch has proposed doing the demolition in-house using Haywood’s DOT maintenance crew.

Burch hasn’t gotten an answer from Raleigh yet, but has promised the town to help find a resolution.

“They have been very helpful,” Hites said of the local DOT officials.

Why the false start

The DOT bought up right-of-way for the roundabout last year. Before tearing down the buildings that lay in the project’s footprint, the first order of business was asbestos remediation.

That job was done as a stand-alone contract, but required some tear out of roofs and walls in the process.

“What was demolished so far was only torn off to get to those things that contained asbestos,” McGuire explained.

The project was then caught mid-stream by a trifecta of financial problems within the DOT that has tabled hundreds of road projects across the state.

The DOT is reeling from $700 million in emergency repairs for natural disasters, from a rash of landslides in the mountains to hurricane flooding on the coast.

Meanwhile, the DOT was hit with a class action lawsuit by landowners who claim their property was devalued by speculative highway routes, costing the agency $600 million so far.

The coronavirus was the final blow.

“It was two-fold, and now it’s three-fold,” Burch said of the cash-strapped DOT.

The gasoline tax that funds road projects tanked in March. Aside from people driving less, the cost of gas has gone down — and the tax is based on the price at the pump. That’s led to a projected $300 million shortfall in the current financial quarter alone, Burch said.

The roundabout is hardly the only project that’s been derailed. Improvements to the U.S. 19-23 corridor between Canton and Buncombe County is in a holding pattern, and the makeover of South Main in Waynesville is touch-and-go.

The only project still on track in Haywood County is the Russ Avenue make-over, with construction supposedly starting sometime in 2021.

Russ Avenue is why the roundabout got delayed all the way to 2024. When Russ Avenue is under construction, the North Main corridor will become an important way into town — so it couldn’t be torn up at the same time.

“We said ‘If we can’t get it finished before the Russ Avenue project starts, we have to wait until it ends,’” Burch said. “We had to give people an alternative route that was open.”

The roundabout delay is a blow to what town leaders had hoped would spark revitalization of the North Main intersection that has seen better days.

“We were really excited about the rejuvenation of that part of the town,” Hites said.

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